Deborah Brauser

November 03, 2014

BERLIN ― Publication pressure may be leading to scientific misconduct, new research suggests.

Dr Joeri Tijdink

A survey study of 315 scientists in the Netherlands showed that 15% admitted to recently fabricating or falsifying research data, more than 25% admitted to deleting negative data or results, and 72% rated publication pressure as "too high."

"I think the current system is partly detrimental," lead author Joeri K. Tijdink, MD, PhD, fellow at Free University Medical Center in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and psychiatrist at Tergooi Hospitals in Hilversum, told Medscape Medical News.

"Scientists are under a lot of pressure, and they have to publish a lot. So there are fights for authorship, there's competition, and there are detrimental effects," he said.

Dr Tijdink noted that the pressure appears highest for those who are in the early stages of their careers.

"With positive results, you get high-impact papers. And with high-impact papers, it's easier to get funding, and then with funding you can get your appointment and security. That's the system."

The research was presented here at the 27th European College of Neuropsychopharmacology (ECNP) Congress.

Compromised Credibility

"There is increasing evidence that scientific misconduct occurs on a scale that compromises the credibility of science," write the current investigators.

"Particularly in medicine, concerns have been expressed that scientists are continuously producing 'publishable' results at the expense of quality, scientific rigor, and personal integrity," they add.

Dr Tijdink noted that 6 years ago, when he was in academia, he started noticing troubling behaviors when it came to publishing scientific results.

"I had the sense that how it works does not fit well with the idea of 'true thinkers' among scientists, that they want to discover new things, and they want to do it honestly," he said. "So I wanted to do research into this because that's the only way to find ways to improve the system."

In his poster presentation at ECNP, Dr Tijdink discussed results from four studies that he and his colleagues have conducted in this area.

The first, which was published in PLoS One in 2013, examined publication pressure among 437 medical professors in the Netherlands. It showed that publication pressure correlated with burnout symptoms; 54% said this pressure had become excessive, and 26% said that the pressure has a "sickening effect on medical science." A total of 24% of the participants reported signs of burnout.

The second study, which was published in BMC Medical Education in September of this year, specifically examined burnout symptoms in these professors. It showed that emotional exhaustion was common, that early-career factors related to burnout scores, and that there was a significant inverse correlation between emotional exhaustion and level of professional engagement/H-index ranking.

"If you're a professor who has a lot of papers that have been published, you feel less burned out and less pressure. This is logical, because you're more used to how the system works," said Dr Tijdink.

Data Cooking

The third study examined the potential relationship between publication pressure and self-reported fraud and QRP in 315 Flemish medical scientists.

Using an online nationwide survey, the scientists were asked to fill out a validated publication pressure questionnaire (PPQ) and a scientific misconduct questionnaire, and to provide demographic information.

Results showed that 15% of the participants self-reported that they had fabricated, falsified, plagiarized, or manipulated data in the past 3 years.

A total of 25% said they had at some time "deleted data or results in order to confirm a hypothesis (data cooking/massaging)," and 70% admitted to assigning authorship to individuals who did not contribute to the study. In addition, 72% rated publication pressure as "too high," and 61% said that this type of pressure has negative effects on the credibility and validity of medical science.

Finally, publication pressure, as shown on the PPQ, was significantly associated with composite scientific misconduct severity score.

Preliminary results from the fourth study, which consisted of talking with focus groups of medical scientists, students, and professors, showed that the participants had cynical views on authorships, funding bias, and peer reviews. They also said there were detrimental effects of reward and ranking systems.

"When talking with this group, I tried to look at positive aspects of the publication culture, but it was very hard to find. They were pretty stressed out about the system," said Dr Tijdink.

"Finding knowledge is the motivation for scientists, but they feel like they cannot reach out because there are so many factors that can influence scientific results."

Taken all together, Dr Tijdink said that the studies' results are disturbing and have garnered quite a bit of attention in his home country.

"More than half of a group of professors say the reliability and validity of scientific results are not trustworthy, and 25% say that medical science is sick," he said.

"Some people think, 'Well, the system is rotten.' But because of that, there have been many initiatives all over the world to improve it. So there are some benefits from these types of findings."

Global Issue?

When asked for comment, David Kupfer, MD, professor of psychiatry, neuroscience, and clinical and translational science at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in Pennsylvania, told Medscape Medical News that the poster brought together a lot of different aspects of the high-pressure environment felt by European scientists.

Dr David Kupfer

"First of all, there is this publication pressure. And that's not inconsistent with the way things operate in North America," said Dr Kupfer, who is also a past president of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology.

"There is pressure to publish peer-review papers because they are often going to be the necessary database that will be judged to get first career development awards from the government, as well as documenting that if you've had a grant, what's happened with it."

Dr Kupfer added that this type of information puts researchers in line to get their next grants and is important for promotion.

"I think the cynicism has often been that people are publishing just the number of papers rather than the quality. And I think the encouragement of people publishing in very good journals is a very good idea, because it puts the pressure on putting together something that is substantial," he said.

Regarding the study that looked at burnout and emotional exhaustion in professors, he said that many people do consider the process "to be a bit of a horse race." This means it can be difficult ― and not everybody will succeed as a researcher.

Interestingly, this topic is currently a subject of focus by the National Institutes of Health and the Institute of Medicine, among others, said Dr Kupfer. These organizations are coming up with alternative career trajectories for those who are getting PhDs but might not fit with becoming researchers.

"These alternative pathways are in research administration, the facilitation of large-scale research enterprises, or working in industry and healthcare businesses, where the expectation is that you get some of that training but don't have to go on and compete for a grant," he said.

Regarding the study that looked at data manipulation, he noted that 20 years ago, there was less oversight and less "responsible research review" than there is today. However, he said that although there are always going to be a few bad apples, there seems to have been a lot more attention paid to these issues in the United States in the last 10 to 15 years.

"I think people are paying much more attention to the data that are being analyzed," said Dr Kupfer.

He added that although he does not have research to support his viewpoint, "Faculty are paying more attention to younger faculty. And maybe the emphasis on career mentoring and working in groups and looking at data collectively, and less Lone Ranger activity, may in fact reduce some of this data manipulation."

27th European College of Neuropsychopharmacology (ECNP) Congress. Abstract P.1.L.001. Presented October 19, 2014.

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